How can the classic models of employee engagement be used to understand and empower the workforce today? Employee engagement has been convincingly connected to business outcomes, and it’s a key performance indicator for many executives. As both practitioners and researchers agree that effective communications is essential to engagement, internal communicators should be greatly concerned with it in their practice.
But with all the discussion of engagement in the workplace, there is still too broad an understanding of what it is. How does engagement work and how do we communicate in support of it?
Like job burnout – a concept born in the folklore and developed over the following decades into a well-defined construct (Maslach 2001) – engagement evolved from the grassroots recognition of people’s relationships with their work. In other words, it’s not derived from researcher models but is a more grounded concept. It’s studied for its unique value and distinction from other constructs.
The growing consensus on engagement focuses on the “thereness” of engaged individuals in their role. They employ their whole selves and perform their roles with energy, authenticity, and a real connection.
Alan Saks, a Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources Management at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Industrial Relations, described the focus of engagement as “how you do what you are supposed to be doing” (2008, p41).
Engaged individuals are not defined by their innovativeness, job satisfaction, or their role-expanding behaviours; they are not defined by their alignment with the organization’s strategies nor their commitment to it. Many of these characteristics may be true of engaged individuals, some being necessary for engagement and others following from individual’s engagement.
But engagement goes beyond these characteristics. It is a more focused concept about presence.
Engagement as Psychological Presence (Kahn)
One model of work engagement was derived from clinical psychology and applied to organizations by William Kahn. His psychological presence model described engagement as
‘the simultaneous employment and expression of a person’s “preferred self” in task behaviors that promote connections to work and to others, personal presence (physical, cognitive, and emotional), and active, full role performances’ (1990, p700).
Based on the work of Abraham Maslow (1954) and others, Kahn proposed that people have preferred versions of themselves that they wish to be as often and as fully as they are able to in their work as in the rest of their lives. The more people can fully inhabit these preferred selves, the more creative, connected, and happier—the more present—they are.
That said, being “yourself” involves risk to the individual. It exposes the intimate self to the world where it can be humiliated, and it requires significant amounts of energy to maintain. As such, it is not a frivolous undertaking for most people and cannot be maintained indefinitely.
Additionally, Kahn found in his studies, corroborated by May et al (2004), that engagement has a situational as well as individual aspect. Engagement arises in situations where
In essence, the individual is in a constant negotiation with the world for how much of themselves they are willing to invest in their role based on the perceived meaningfulness of the outcome, the safety of the situation, and how available they feel to accomplish it (p.694).
Kahn’s model is different than many of the popular conceptions of engagement where it is presented as a more chronic or binary state, as in employees are either engaged or they aren’t. With psychological presence, we see something more fluid that flows with and between the individual and their situation almost on a moment-by-moment basis.
Organizational psychologist Alan Saks (2008) shows engagement is about “how you do what you are supposed to be doing.” Researchers have been narrowing the scope of this concept to how much an employee is really there in the performance of their role.
In contrast to the model of psychological presence, we will now look at a second model of engagement.
Engagement as Anti-Burnout
Since the 1970s, psychologist Christine Maslach has been studying the phenomenon of job burnout. In a 2001 paper coauthored by colleagues Wilmar Schaufeli and Michael Leiter, they reviewed the nearly four decades of research in the field. One of the most popular means of measuring burnout is the Maslach Burnout Index (MBI) which has the three key dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness. In the past decade, researchers have come to propose engagement as the “positive antithesis” of burnout, characterized by the opposing dimensions of energy, involvement, and efficacy.
Focusing increasingly on engagement, Schaufeli and collaborators Arnold Bakker and Marisa Salanova (2004) developed the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES) – a survey with the revised dimensions of vigor, dedication, and absorption. Vigor and dedication correspond to the MBI dimensions energy and involvement, respectively.
In this model, effectiveness has been replaced by the new dimension “absorption.” This roughly corresponds to Kahn’s dimension “focus” and refers to the sense of being so wholly present in the performance of the role that one loses track of time. Colloquially, this is often referred to in the expression “time flies when you’re having fun,” This “flow” state has been most thoroughly studied by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly in athletes, artists, and musicians but is increasingly being employed in media studies, gaming, and – significantly – job design.
Maslach identified six areas of the work-life which lead to burnout or engagement. They are workload, control in the sense of having autonomy, rewards and recognition, community and social support, perceived fairness, and values (Maslach 2001).
The psychological presence model and the burnout models are very similar in their description of engagement and the conditions which are most directly involved in allowing for it.
Looking across the columns we can see a great deal of overlap and agreement between the whole set of dimensions of the compared models, if not perfect agreement of where to draw the lines between them to assign a term. For instance, “meaningfulness” in the Presence model could quite easily characterize aspects of “autonomy” (control), “rewards/recognition,” and “values” in the Burnout model.
What appears to be missing from the psychological presence model but is present in both the folklore and the engagement-burnout model is the idea of energized performance. However, if we go back to Kahn’s original work, he describes “active, full role performances” as characterizing engagement. “People who are personally engaged keep their selves within a role, without sacrificing one for the other” are able to “drive personal energies into role behaviors (self-employment) and [display] the self within the role (self-expression)” (p.700). This would seem to be what Kahn is describing as “integration” in his 1992 paper:
Integration is “a matter of experiencing a sense of wholeness in a situation: people feel as if important personal components are brought into the situation instead of split off”, and they may “spontaneously [call] upon any and all dimensions of themselves in saying and doing what seems appropriate to situations. They may switch from being creative, thoughtful, intense, funny, and compliant, juggling and integrating the different aspects of themselves their situations call forth” (p.326)
In summary, then, the signature features of the two contrasted models seem to be:
We now look at an experiment into engagement that recalls the original transactional nature of engagement as suggested by William Kahn (1990) as part of his approach for assembling the psychological presence model. This new experiment studies an externally oriented transaction, different from Kahn’s internal and personal negotiation. We then explore some of the ways to drive employee engagement in the workplace by communicating in ways that leverage the relationships described in the engagement models.
In his 2006 study, Alan Saks applied Social Exchange Theory (SET) to the understanding of engagement. The basic premise of this is, in exchange for specific types of job conditions and organizational conditions, people offer greater levels of job and organizational engagement.
He tested several of the areas of work-life identified by Maslach et al for their impact on engagement. In doing so, he very specifically focused on connecting areas of formal research literatures to those work-life conditions. One of the most important outcomes of his work was the finding that job and organizational engagement are related but distinct structures and have different precondition and outcome profiles.
Saks concluded that the results suggest SET can be used to explain at least some elements of engagement; people respond in a transactional manner to the conditions of appropriate work conditions with increased job engagement and, likewise for organizational conditions, with organizational engagement.
Interestingly, Kahn also envisioned a transactional approach underlying his model. However, the psychological presence approach suggested that this contract was between the individual and themselves and how much that person was willing to risk to experience self-expression and self-employment of the preferred self (Kahn, 1990, p. 694). This is a compelling area for future research and one that could be connected with greater senses of happiness and fulfillment.
Communicating for Engagement
With an understanding of these current psychological models of engagement and their preconditions, we have a much clearer ability to understand why communications is so critical to engaging workforces. Using the idea of an ongoing negotiation for the full investment by an employee of their preferred self in their work role, we can identify some key priorities for our work as communicators (this also applies if we use Saks’ suggested SET model between employee and employer, and Maslach’s six work-life conditions). We need to ensure employees always have answers they believe as they relate to:
Strategic communications begins with the recruitment and orientation process, and continues through all touchpoints with the employee during their career. It is present not only in the messages but in the channels themselves and in the communication skills of line managers. Maslach et al stressed that feedback and autonomy are critical elements of engagement; we would extend this to communications in that employees need to both hear to understand their purpose in the organization as well as feel they can impact their situation with their words and actions.
The Personal Act of Engagement
One thing we emphasize in our work on engagement is that it isn’t leaders, managers, communicators or consultants that create engagement; our roles are to create the conditions that best enable people to be engaged. Everywhere we find engagement, we can be certain that it is that individual who has brought themselves to the employee role, at increased risk to themselves. It is an act of trust that we will support them exposing their most valued identity in pursuit of our shared objectives. Kahn (1992) described engagement as a gift that we should treat with genuine appreciation, never taking it for granted. We must have high standards of work and accountability to role responsibilities, absolutely, but that extra level of performance excellence that comes with engagement is a wonderful thing every time it happens.
Originally published October 6, 2009.
Kahn William A. (1990). Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. The Academy of Management Journal, 33(4), pp. 692-724.
Kahn William A. (1992). To Be Fully There: Psychological Presence at Work. Human Relations, 45 (4), pp. 321-349.
Maslach Christina , Wilmar B Schaufeli, Michael P Leiter (2001). Job Burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, pp. 397-422.
May Douglas R., Gilson Richard L., Harter Lynn M. (2004). The psychological conditions of meaningfulness, safety and availability and the engagement of the human spirit at work. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 77 (1), pp. 11-37.
Saks Alan M. (2006). Antecedents and consequences of employee engagement. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 21(7), pp. 600 – 619.
Saks, Alan M. (2008). The Meaning and Bleeding of Employee Engagement: How Muddy Is the Water? Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 1(1), pp. 40–43.
Schaufeli, Wilmar. B., Arnold B. Bakker, & Marisa Salanova (2006). The measurement of work engagement with a short questionnaire: A cross-national study. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 66 (4), pp. 701–716.